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Are we misinterpreting UAE foreign policy?

October 15, 2021

Anwar Gargash, a diplomatic advisor to the UAE, recently spoke to an international conference on the UAE’s desire to smooth over tensions with Turkey and Iran. Turkey and the UAE found themselves on opposite sides of the Arab Spring, with the former supporting revolutionary movements around the Middle East and the latter trying to frustrate them. And the UAE shares Saudi concerns about Iran’s influence.

This may be, as Trita Parsi recently wrote, part of a broader pattern of regional reconciliation sparked by America’s withdrawal. But I think there is something unique to the UAE in this announcement. A specific part of Gargash’s statement caught my attention:

Part of what we need to do is manage our region better. There is a vacuum and whenever there is a vacuum there is trouble

This desire–to better manage the region and avoid disruptive power vacuums–is a long-standing theme in UAE foreign policy. If we interpret the UAE’s post-Arab Spring actions through this lens they are more complicated than a Saudi-style counter-revolution. This subtle distinction can provide some opportunity to better engage with the state.

Assumptions about UAE foreign policy

An assumption flowing from this is that the UAE’s moves towards “moderation” and “tolerance” are just for show.

Many observers assume the UAE is a counter-revolutionary state. That is, powerful states will coordinate to undermine social movements and rising powers trying to transform the status quo. These states refuse to give up the power they wield, and will fight to maintain it. Think Metternich in the 1800s, working with other conservative powers to keep liberalism in check.

Applied to the Middle East, one would argue that the UAE’s foreign policy is an attempt to collaborate with other authoritarian states (like Saudi Arabia, see below) to undermine any potential for change in the region. This is because the UAE’s rulers hope to maintain their secure and privileged status. We can see this from the results of UAE and counter-revolution in a Google search:

Google search results on UAE and counter-revolution

An assumption flowing from this is that the UAE’s various moves towards “moderation” and “tolerance” are just for show. The UAE has initiated several apparently dramatic moves meant to promote religious dialogue. This includes organizing conferences on religious moderation, establishing a Ministry of Tolerance, hosting the Pope and generally promoting “moderate Islam” in its foreign policy. If, however, the UAE’s foreign policy is a counter-revolutionary one all of these are suspect. At best they would be cheap talk, at worst active attempts to deflect criticism of the UAE’s human rights record.

These assumptions miss one aspect of US foreign policy, however; its emphasis on maintaining regional stability.

Additionally, we assume Saudi Arabia and the UAE share similar motivations in their foreign policies. That is, Saudi Arabia has been leading efforts to stymie revolutionary change in the Middle East for decades. This includes its rivalry with Iran and Iraq, and its attempts to undermine Muslim Brotherhood political gains in the wake of the Arab Spring. Many observers suggest the UAE is a partner in these efforts. Notice the way they are often referred to in the same sentence in the above Google searches.

The importance of stability in UAE foreign policy

These assumptions miss one aspect of UAE foreign policy, however; its emphasis on maintaining regional stability. The UAE’s goal is to prevent any disruptions to regional order, whatever the source. The UAE recognized its vulnerability to its larger neighbors–Saudi Arabia and Iran–and ideological currents that periodically swept the region. Maintaining a stable and calm region was one of its few initial options to ensure security. The UAE was trying to avoid being swallowed up by regional disorder.

We can see this in early foreign policy statements by UAE leaders. In a 1972 speech, the UAE’s first leader laid out its foreign policy priorities: “maintaining good relations and cooperation” with neighbors, “settling disputes that arise” in the region, a “commitment to the Arab world,” “improving Islamic solidarity,” and “fruitful cooperation with all nations.”

We can also see it in the UAE’s ambivalent approach to counterterrorism. The UAE was initially a troublesome state on this issue, allowing terrorist financing to flow through its banks and terrorist suspects to move through its territory while establishing official ties with the Taliban. After America pressured states to fall in line on the Global War on Terrorism, the UAE did so. It became one of our more reliable partners. As I discuss in my book, the reason for the UAE’s initial lax approach to terrorism was fear of causing domestic and regional turmoil by cracking down on terrorist supporters. When it became clear failing to do so was more of a problem for the UAE’s place in the region it adjusted its policies.

Reinterpreting UAE responses to the Arab Spring

If we look at UAE responses to the Arab Spring as an attempt to maintain regional stability in the face of perceived vulnerability–rather than crush revolutions to maintain its power–a subtle distinction emerges. Saudi Arabia saw the protests spreading from Tunisia as a threat to its domestic rule and regional influence. The UAE saw–as Gargash noted above–a power vacuum caused by the fall of long-standing regimes. The UAE’s policies–from Qatar to Libya–were primarily defensive. And its initiatives to advance tolerance and moderation were not (completely) hypocritical. Debate about this is ongoing, but the UAE is putting too many resources into these tolerance/moderation efforts–and over too many years–for them to just be a splashy attempt to distract critics. The UAE sees moderation as the key to maintaining regional order–and its own security–and thus wants to promote it.

I’m not saying we should justify or excuse issues with the UAE’s domestic and foreign policies. As the detention of Matthew Hedges shows, despite its talk of tolerance the UAE still needs to implement real political reforms. We can likewise question whether its tolerance and moderation initiatives work (I am skeptical in my current book project, with a conference version available here). And the UAE’s involvement in the civil wars in Libya and Yemen–even if they were intended to minimize chaos–are causing strategic and humanitarian problems for the region. It’s also hard to square the idea of the UAE being forced to tamp down activism as its only choice for security with its status as one of the world’s top arms importers.

That being said, the motivation behind the UAE’s post-Arab Spring policies differed from that of Saudi Arabia, and the generic “counter-revolutionary” frame we use to describe it. This matters for scholarly study of this crucial state, as we want to properly understand what goes into its regional actions. But it also matters for policy debates.

A better way to approach the UAE

Recognizing this aspect of UAE foreign policy provides opportunities to better engage with the state on crucial issues. Specifically, the differing motivations between Saudi Arabia and the UAE can allow us to drive a wedge between them. As Sheline has noted, “multiple cracks” have emerged in the UAE-Saudi relationship. This includes approaches to OPEC, COVID-19, and Israel. Earlier breaks were visible over the intervention in Yemen. Approaching the two as a unified bloc will be ineffective and possibly counterproductive.

Attempts to assure the UAE that various policies the international community may prefer–disengagement from Libya, post-conflict reconstruction in Yemen, détente with Iran–will not lead to a “power vacuum” could be effective, however. America is growing rightfully frustrated with Saudi Arabia after what Katulis calls the Trump Administration’s “blank check” approach. There are just as many reasons to be frustrated with the UAE, but given the different motivations for its disruptive behavior, greater opportunity to work towards a constructive relationship.

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Peter Henne is an Associate Professor of Political Science in the College of Arts and Sciences in the University of Vermont. His research focuses on religion in foreign policy and political violence.